- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 18, 2006

NEW YORK

Sean Hannity will not abandon ship.

President Bush’s approval ratings have sunk into the 30s, but Fox News Channel’s tenacious conservative isn’t wavering in his support, even while parting ways with the president over immigration and the Dubai ports deal.

“Let me be straight with you — I like George Bush,” Mr. Hannity says. “I think he’s a man of principle, a man of faith. I think he’s got a backbone of steel and he’s a real, genuine, big-time leader. … He’s a consequential figure for his time. We don’t see it right now.”

History will vindicate Mr. Bush as a strong leader the same way it did Harry Truman, another unpopular president of his time, Mr. Hannity says.

Even surf-by viewers of “Hannity & Colmes” will recognize those opinions. The popularity of the weeknight talk show and Mr. Hannity’s syndicated talk-radio show has enabled the 44-year-old Long Island native to become a business unto himself — hawking books, recommending CDs and arranging dates for like-minded singles.

Mr. Hannity packed a Broadway theater with fans one night last month for an evening that mixed putative stand-up comedy and exhortations to the faithful.

Few talk-show hosts are as adept at inspiring sputtering rage among unlike-minded people. Actor Alec Baldwin, for instance, called Mr. Hannity a “no-talent, former-construction-worker hack” during a recent radio confrontation.

“I think the guy’s political views are off the wall, but he is an undeniably brilliant television talent,” says Ellis Henican, a Newsday columnist and frequent on-air foil. “He exudes authenticity. You can disagree with him, as I do, about almost every thought he has but recognize that Sean is truly somebody who believes in something.”

Mr. Henican, in fact, was part of a particularly electric “Hannity & Colmes” on March 29. In a rare moment when Mr. Hannity was double-teamed, Mr. Henican and Alan Colmes pummeled him about his frequent criticism of those who attack Mr. Bush while “he’s leading troops into harm’s way.”

The president’s sagging popularity and the dwindling public support for the war in Iraq definitely have made things tougher for Mr. Hannity, Mr. Henican says.

Mr. Hannity criticized the deal under which a Dubai-owned company would have managed some operations at six American ports as being a threat to national security. During the debate on illegal immigration, he takes a much tougher line than the president on illegal aliens and in seeking more secure borders. Though this may upset the president’s supporters and some of Mr. Hannity’s fans, Mr. Henican says he believes Mr. Hannity gains wider credibility by exhibiting something other than unquestioned support for Mr. Bush.

“I say these things every day,” Mr. Hannity says. “Liberal critics don’t hear me say it.”

Mr. Hannity was plucked from talk radio nearly 10 years ago for the Fox show. He labored largely unnoticed in those early years, which probably was a good thing, says Bill Shine, Fox News Channel’s senior vice president of programming.

“In the beginning, he was awful. Really bad,” Mr. Shine says. Mr. Hannity would ask three-minute questions that would end with, “Aren’t I right?” he recalls.

The young host sharpened his game, and “Hannity & Colmes” exploded in popularity after the September 11 terrorist attacks, regularly beating CNN’s “Larry King Live.”

The former roofer’s populist appeal was evident in how he deftly turned Mr. Baldwin’s intended “construction worker” slur into a badge of honor. Mr. Hannity called into a radio show where Mr. Baldwin appeared last month to confront the actor on an anti-Bush statement. It turned into an ugly war of words. Mr. Hannity revisited it so often that Mr. Henican needled him, “I don’t think you’ve milked it enough.”

During a relatively slow news period, “Hannity & Colmes” averaged 1.5 million viewers for the first three months of this year. That’s down 10 percent from the same period in 2005, according to Nielsen Media Research. He was wildly popular on Broadway, though. After Oliver North and Jackie Mason appeared as warm-up acts, Mr. Hannity stalked the stage. He offered a tentative Bill Clinton impersonation, made jokes about Ted Kennedy’s drinking and attracted boos at the mere mention of Hillary Clinton’s name. He called her “the ice princess.”

Later, during an interview in his Fox News Channel office, Mr. Hannity says there’s nothing inconsistent about attacking Democrats, then attacking Democrats for attacking Mr. Bush.

“I don’t hate the Democrats,” he says. “I have fun with the Democrats. As a matter of fact, I use them for a lot of fun on the air. What they’re saying is serious — while we’re at war, and while the president is sending troops in harm’s way after the worst attack in history. There’s a big difference between that and joking about Bill Clinton’s sex-capades.”

Growing up on Long Island, Mr. Hannity never missed a speech by Ronald Reagan. He listened intently to radio talk-show hosts, including Larry King. He’s living his dream, he says.

Mr. Hannity has donated to some Republican officeholders, including Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. He says he doesn’t consider that a conflict of interest because he’s a commentator and not a journalist. He professes to have no political plans for himself.

Even if Mr. Bush is having his problems, don’t think Mr. Hannity is vulnerable.

“I’m ready to fight,” Mr. Hannity says. “This is what I do for a living. I’m not afraid to take a punch. Give me your best shot.”

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